The Editor’s Post: Can capitalism honour the memory of Anita Roddick?

Is The Body Shop’s likely demise a warning that purpose-led companies can’t survive the choppiest waters of the marketplace? Or is there another way? This week’s view from the Pioneers Post newsroom.

As news that The Body Shop’s UK business was going into administration broke this week, Mary Portas, retail guru and co-chair of the Better Business Act, posted a homage to The Body’s Shop’s founder Anita Roddick on LinkedIn. “Let’s stop and remember the visionary, trailblazing, eco-warrior activist, businesswoman and entrepreneur, Anita Roddick,” she said.

Anita had inspired and influenced so many people today, said Portas. Mark Constantine, co-founder of ethical cosmetics brand Lush, who worked with Anita and her husband Gordon in the 1970s and 80s echoed this. Without Anita Roddick, there would be no Lush or B Corps today, he wrote in The Times, paying tribute to Roddick’s groundbreaking approach to doing business for good.

Constantine pointed to what so many of us – formerly loyal customers – felt was the beginning of the end for The Body Shop: its sale to L’Oreal in 2006 for £652m. L’Oreal increased its margins by moving manufacturing to the Philippines. “But you can’t cheapen everything, remove the values and take more profit without the customers noticing,” wrote Constantine, “they lost that feeling one got when buying a Body Shop product – that you were helping to change the world.”

I adored The Body Shop in the 1980s and 1990s, like so many other British young people. I bought those slippery, dissolving bath pearls, used the fruity shampoos and, most of all, loved the company’s commitment to animal rights and fair trade. But today it’s too expensive, the products don’t seem all that special, and its social media messaging is all over the place – switching from posts about young people’s political rights to urging customers to indulge in self-care with its home fragrances. Some of my friends – also big fans back in the day – feel that it sold out, and it’s obsolete now.

So, yes, Anita Roddick did have a massive impact on people like Mary Portas and Mark Constantine, but will her impact really survive the long term? What is her legacy going to be? As The Body Shop gasped for air over the past few weeks, the Circularity Gap Report 2024, which was published last month, showed that the circular economy is in decline. The share of secondary materials consumed by the global economy has decreased from 9.1% in 2018 to 7.2% in 2023, a 21% drop in five years. During the same period the world has consumed over 500 gigatonnes of stuff, which is 28% of all the materials humanity has consumed since 1900.

The Body Shop, at least when it began, aimed to develop to a less extractive, more circular business model. We need more businesses like this, but in cut-throat marketplaces, without a charismatic founder like Anita Roddick at the helm to keep the moral compass pointing in the right direction, can they really survive the course? 

Recently, some companies, including Patagonia and Tony’s Chocolonely, have taken action to try to protect their purpose in perpetuity. But all over the world, social business founders must give serious thought to how their businesses – and their integrity – can last in the future. 

Nick Hoskyns, who supplied The Body Shop with sesame oil from the Juan Francisco Paz Silva cooperative in Nicaragua for more than 25 years, said to The Guardian: “Activist fair trade companies aren’t safe in the hands of commercial people...Capitalism has to show it can come up with the goods.”

If capitalism really can come up with the goods, then that would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Anita Roddick.


A tribute to Mark Goodson

We received some sad news this week. Mark Goodson of Cambridge Social Ventures (CSV), who has been a friend and mentor to Pioneers Post and was one of our judges for last year's SE100 Awards, died suddenly at the weekend. Nicole Helwig, Executive Director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation, wrote: "Mark has been the backbone of CSV for over a decade and will be greatly missed on our team and by many others. His gentle approach to coaching was an inspiration and his kind and positive nature will not soon be forgotten."

Mark was due to speak in next week’s SE100 Social Business Coffee Break webinar. After talking to our partners at NatWest Social & Community Capital, we have decided not to go ahead with the webinar for now. We will have an updated schedule of webinars soon.


This week's top stories

‘A lost opportunity’: The Body Shop’s collapse into administration is mourned by impact community

'Strong growth' of UK social investment market since 2012 demonstrates resilience of investees, says Big Society Capital

‘It’s about channelling the love for my daughter into the fuel that gets me out of bed’ – Dr Zareen Ahmed


Top photo: Women making fair trade shea butter for The Body Shop in 2018. Image courtesy of The Body Shop